[Column] What if Seoul took reunification by force off the table?

Posted on : 2024-05-20 17:17 KST Modified on : 2024-05-20 17:17 KST
By eliminating it as an option in the outbreak of a conflict, Seoul could make strides to address some of the other myriad crises it and the world faces today
Soldiers from New Zealand wait for a transport Osprey MV-22 aircraft during the Double Dragon military exercises on a South Korean Dokdo-class amphibious vessel, on March 9, 2016. (courtesy of ROK Navy)
Soldiers from New Zealand wait for a transport Osprey MV-22 aircraft during the Double Dragon military exercises on a South Korean Dokdo-class amphibious vessel, on March 9, 2016. (courtesy of ROK Navy)

Is South Korea in a crisis?

Even without mentioning the particulars in each and every area, it does at least seem apparent that crises abound. That’s why some are referring to it as a “polycrisis.” It’s also a case where various crises are dovetailing in a vicious cycle.

Looking at a reality without any clear solutions or way out, I find myself recalling the words of the world-renowned scholar Jared Diamond. Describing a crisis as a situation in which people face an immense challenge that cannot be overcome with the typical approaches and solutions, he stressed that overcoming such a crisis requires the pursuit of “selective change.”

The implication of the words “selective change” is that we have a choice and that by making it, we can achieve significant transformation. So what sort of choice is available?

As a matter for South Korean society and politicians to seriously discuss, I would suggest the idea of ruling out the possibility of armed reunification in the case of a contingency on the peninsula. It may sound strange, but it’s a choice that potentially offers us various beneficial changes.

I’ll start by discussing what gave me this idea. There were three main factors.

The first was the crisis in inter-Korean relations, which are spiraling into antagonism. The second was the crisis at home in South Korea, which faces issues of cost-of-living, inequality and population decline. The third was the global crisis, as exemplified by climate disasters.

These three crises are interconnected, and overcoming them will thus require selective change rooted in convergent thinking.

Ruling out an armed reunification scenario may not be a panacea, but it is well worth discussing as part of public discourse. The military strategy for achieving Korea’s reunification by force in the event of a war or “upheaval” in Choson — that is, North Korea in its own terms — is something that demands massive inputs of human and material resources on a daily basis and that has a negative impact in terms of climate and the environment.

When did this idea of armed reunification in an emergency scenario come about?

The Syngman Rhee regime continued advocating “invading North Korea and reunifying by force” as a national policy even after the Korean War, although this was more or less a pipe dream with the UN Command — i.e., the US — holding operational control. As recently as the early 1990s, the operational plan devised by the US was limited to defense, repulsion and retaliation for a scenario of armed aggression by the North.

It was not until 1998 that a wartime armed reunification scenario was incorporated into the operational plan. At the time, the Kim Dae-jung administration declared “ruling out reunification by absorption” as one of the principles for its policies toward Pyongyang, but content along these lines was included in the ROK/US Combined Forces Command’s Operations Plan 5027-98.

Since then, this scenario has been further fleshed out and reinforced even as South Korean administrations have changed. This was the case even with the Moon Jae-in administration’s “Defense Reform 2.0” plan.

Kim Jong-un was not speaking without any basis in fact when he claimed that attempts at reunification by absorption have “remained unchanged even a bit whether they advocated ‘democracy’ or disguised themselves as ‘conservatism.’” In that sense, it may be fruitful to discuss what kind of positive impact it might have on inter-Korean relations and the political situation on the peninsula if we were to rule out an armed reunification scenario.

Even more definite effects can be anticipated in South Korea itself.

A major factor in South Korea’s continued adherence to a conscription system and insistence on a large military of 500,000 in active service is based on the military need for around 400,000 troops for the “occupation and stabilization” of the North in an emergency.

Much of our defense spending — which amounts to around 60 trillion won this year — goes toward the weapons, equipment, training and troop operations necessary to achieve that aim. This suggests that if we ruled out the possibility of armed reunification, we could reduce our troop numbers and defense spending.

By cutting our troop numbers to under 300,000 and devising an appealing volunteer military system, we can contribute to mitigating or adapting various issues in South Korean society, including socioeconomic inequality, gender-based conflicts, and a sharp decline in the working-age population. By channeling the difference in defense spending toward areas such as education, health care, renewable energy, and infrastructure, we can achieve job creation effects that outstrip the benefits from the defense industry.

This would also be an effective approach in terms of responding to climate issues, which are at the heart of the overarching crisis the world finds itself in

The military’s share of carbon emissions is enormous, with a single fighter aircraft emitting as much in one hour as an automobile does in seven years. Ruling out an armed reunification scenario could lead to reductions in military activities such as joint exercises with the US — by far the largest in scale anywhere in the world — which would translate into a major reduction in emissions.

This idea may sound like it disregards national security. But we can achieve effective deterrent capabilities against external threats even when we rule out the prospect of reunifying Korea by force.

In an era of steep population decline, raising the conscription rate to ensure enough troops will also translate into a larger management burden. Most importantly, the target of this scenario, Choson, is now transforming into a nuclear-armed state that is breaking out of its poverty and isolation, while our allies in the US are increasingly reluctant to accept a war that would result in American blood being spilled.

Choson and the US are a lot different now, and it’s time for us to ask ourselves what good it does for South Korea to adhere to this idea of reunifying by force. It’s also time for us to discuss what benefits can come from ruling that idea out.

By Cheong Wook-sik, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute and director of the Peace Network

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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